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Managing COVID 19 – and Our Mental Health – in 2022

February 3, 2022 – 5 min read

By Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP Vice President of Research

Headshot of Jill looking at the camera

I often describe myself as either “pragmatically optimistic” or “optimistically pragmatic,” and I think people who know me would probably agree. What this means is that I tend to be both hopeful and practical. I don’t have unlimited hope – but I do have enough hope to generally believe that things will eventually work out. I then do whatever I can that is within my control to help make that happen.

I have been known to find a silver lining in almost anything, while still acknowledging and experiencing the pain and loss that we all sometimes face. I often say, “Life is like that…all of it!” In other words, there are painful things in life, and there is also hope. My parents also encouraged me to, “Know when it is good and celebrate it.” It’s important to acknowledge when good things happen, even if they’re small good things. I have to admit, I think they were right.

Two years into COVID19, despite all the loss, isolation, fear and the emotional toll it’s had on so many of us, I am very optimistic we will get through this and continue to thrive. While I am confident that I will keep going, I have to admit that right now I am struggling with the practical side of how to keep a realistically positive outlook, like so many of us are. I thought things were easing up in November – and then I got COVID in December! Thank goodness I am vaxxed, boosted and otherwise healthy. I have done what I believe I can do to stay healthy. I’m trying to concentrate on what I can do to keep moving forward.

As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Vice President of Research, I always have research on my mind – and research shows that mindfulness and being intentional about what you do reduces the impact of stress, and supports a sense of wellbeing. The skill of being mindful is something that can be learned. 

In terms of the pragmatics – the practical ‘making it happen’ of caring for my own mental health during the pandemic – here are some practices I am using, which might be useful to you, too. I use the word ‘practices,’ because every day I have to try again, accept what the day has brought, and do it again the next day. Most days go okay, though some are better than others. (Anyone who follows my daily goals on Twitter knows that I set a few simple goals for myself each day – more on that below.) See if some of these guidelines I've been using might resonate with you:

  1. Pay attention to the basics: nutrition, sleep, exercise, hydration, hygiene and social connection. Thinking in terms of the basics works for me. I have a pretty low bar for each of them! For example, some days my exercise consists of simply standing and consciously breathing several times throughout the day (inhale on count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, repeat at least three times); other days, my exercise might be a 2-4-mile walk. For hygiene, some days might mean a shower and hair wash; other days it could mean changing out of my PJs into sweatpants! Social connection might mean reaching out to someone because I feel alone, or because I worry someone else may feel alone. No matter what, it takes a conscious effort to stick to these basics: nutrition, sleep, exercise, hydration, hygiene and social connection. I also try to avoid getting sucked into pitfalls like fear, worry or anger about this whole COVID thing. I acknowledge the negative, and focus on the positive.

  2. Set doable goals for each day. Being a practical person, I set three specific goals for myself each day. My goals – really just reminders for myself – are small and achievable; I view anything more that I do as a plus. On workdays, some of my goals relate to work, and some involve self-care. I find intentionally separating goals for work and nonwork days can be helpful, so on workdays I share infographics and videos from AFSP on social media to foster suicide prevention efforts. (For instance, did you know that there are things you can do to protect your brain from the negative effects of stress? You can learn a lot of things like this from AFSP’s library of short, informative, easily understandable videos from some of the world’s leading suicide prevention researchers.) On weekends, I concentrate on non-work goals such as home, friends and family. I’m grateful that I have a meaningful job, but I want my life to be more than that. I set realistic goals and then try to stretch a bit further, for growth. Here’s an example from when I had COVID: “Daily goals: 1) today’s goals are to rest, breathe, and drink fluids; 2) feel grateful that I am vaccinated and boosted; 3) stay away from people aka quarantine; 4) comfort food.”
  1. Change location. If I don’t make sure to get up and move, go outside, or go to the office, I find that I can sometimes sink into my couch for hours! Sometimes I need that, but I find a change of venue initiates all kinds of necessary adjustments and stimulation. When working at home, I may move my work location from my snack table and rocker in the bedroom to the dining table. Personally, I discovered traveling to the AFSP office helps me with getting in my steps, updating my music on the commute, and seeing others.
  1. Be kind. These are difficult and strange times, and there are many moments in which none of us feel fine. I remind myself of this regularly. I try to live by my four ‘life words’: compassion, respect, patience and persistence. This is a time to remember we are all human, with all the wonderful aspects and foibles that go along with that. I’m being both pragmatic and optimistic when I say: we can do this.

So what do you think: optimistically pragmatic, pragmatically optimistic, or both? I hope some of these ideas resonate for you, and encourage you to try them out for yourself! If you have other suggestions of things that have helped you to safeguard your mental health during the pandemic, please share them with us @AFSPnational on Twitter!

Learn more about what we’ve learned from research about suicide.